Saturday, 4 August 2007

The True Meaning of Food

On a recent weekend, a group of us had the good fortune to be invited to a friend's family home for a Lebanese and Middle Eastern feast. For me it was gastronomic heaven because not only did I get to sample many dishes that I have not had the opportunity to try before, I also got to interrogate our gracious hostess (I hope under not too much sufferage) on details of their ingredients and methods of preparation. Our friend MS, is one of those amazing women that manages to fit into her life events and responsibilities that appear incomprehensible to the rest of us lesser mortals...a full-time working professional, active community member, social educator, mother of four delightful children, talented artist (she paints wonderful watercolour still-lifes that reminisce on the beauty of nature and the vibrant colours of her family's ethnic heritage) and of course as we have discovered, a fabulous cook of the diverse cuisine originating from that same heritage. Did I mention that there's a PhD in reproductive biology somewhere in the midst of all that as well? We arrived in time to catch MS pulling the final dishes from her oven and knew we were in for some meal. However first to catch my eye was the large serving-bowl of fattoush, a Lebanese salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, radish and lettuce tossed together with torn pieces of pita bread freshly crisped under the grill. A lemon and oil dressing was mixed through just before serving. But the salad was merely a teaser for the parade of dishes that were making their way to the dining table.

Clockwise along the table's periphery from bottom left was pickled khiar (cucumbers) to kickstart our tastebuds and whet the appetite. Then there were several bowls of tasty sides including salset taheeni (a sauce based on tahini or sesame paste), a condiment of dry roasted almonds and pine nuts and my favourite, a smoky dip of batanjane mtabbal (variation of smoked eggplant dip or baba ghannouj blended with tahini). Set me aside with just a bowl of this drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and some warmed pita bread and I'll be more than a happy camper! Moving onto the main dishes, there was a bag-roasted spiced leg of lamb which was served on a platter with corn kernels, steamed broccoli florets and roasted mushrooms. The meat was cooked to well-done but remained tender and succulent. Next was sayyadieht samak (roasted fish stewed with rice and pine nuts), a Lebanese "fisherman's dish" spiced with cumin, pepper and lemon. Following that was a huge platter of rice cooked with lamb mince that was also used as stuffing for the dajjaj mahshi (stuffed chicken). Three impressive roasted spatchcocks were perched on top of rice that was soaking up their roasting juices...delicious! A series of non-meat dishes included a yummy hummus (a garlicky dip of chickpea purée with tahini) which was declared by the one true vegetarian among us, and veteran of many a hummus, to be the best she'd ever had. Then there was libb el kousa, a dish to use up the excavated inner flesh of Lebanese zucchinis by frying them up with onions, garlic and spices. Working towards the centre of the table was a dish of bamieh, an intriguing tomato-based stew that celebrates the okra, those interesting hairy finger-like vegetable pods that break down on cooking to help thicken sauces. And last on MS's heavily stressed dining table that was creaking under the weight of all that food, was a centrepiece platter filled with warak inab bi lahme (stewed vine leaves stuffed with rice and minced lamb) and kousa mahshi, stuffed lebanese zucchinis stewed with tomatoes and roasted lamb.

Phew, truly an Arabic feast! There were more than ten of us there but even when none of us could possibly fit any more food into our bulging bellies, there hadn't seemed to be much of a dent made into the vast array of food that MS had laid out. We could only imagine the hard work she would've gone through in preparing this meal for her guests as we listened to stories on the preparation of warak inab and the other dishes. The stuffed vine leaves are a favourite of MS's family, usually a treat reserved for special occasions because of the tedious preparation involved in stuffing and rolling up the petite cigar-shaped treasures. All of her children's eyes lit up when the rolled vines were first tumbled onto the serving platter. They couldn't get enough of it and who could blame them? All of us could not only taste the delicious spices and flavours of those dishes, but were also able to savour the care, dedication, warmth of family and kind hospitality that went into them. Surely the true meaning of food.

Did any of you think that food was over for the night? Ah but I haven't even got onto the desserts yet, which were another impressive array of traditional Lebanese treats that MS wanted for us to try. Pictured are basma, semolina cakes stuffed with pistachios and soaking with syrup and lemon blossom essence; and mouth-watering awwameh (literally 'that which floats'), yeasty balls of flour and potato dough that had been deep-fried till floating and golden then dipped in syrup. Wow...both sweets were new to me and perfect over strong coffee or tea. Needless to say the mood was light and a pleasant evening was had by all. The night continued with the kids pulling volunteers towards the lounge room for SingStar duels on the Playstation...but that experience is probably better left untold.

Thanks MS for the food, great hospitality and the Middle Eastern food education!

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